Love is complex. We need to be specific when defining love as various kinds of love occur - a fact recognized by the Greek language which has multiple terms for “love”.
This is volitional love, an act of the will and is is the broadest kind of love being independent of the recipient. It is all-inclusive and used in John 3:16. It is not necessarily reciprocal and can be directed towards one’s enemies (Matt 5:44). God loves us but we can hate Him. It does not even require a relationship; I can choose to love a needy distant family I’ve never met and send them financial support (they don’t know me and I don’t know them).
If we are speaking of the “broadest” kind of love that is all-inclusive and unconditional, then – yes, agape is the “highest” form of love.
But, it is not the intimate, exclusive form of love relationship that Christ ultimately calls us into with Himself. In Mark 10:21, Jesus is said to love the rich, young ruler. But note that Jesus in that passage calls the ruler into a deeper relationship with him (i.e., “sell everything you have and come follow me”). And what will be the result of this potential deeper relationship? “Treasure in Heaven”. Sadly, the ruler rejects Jesus’ invitation
If our concept of the kind of love relationship God ultimately desires with us and calls us into is only “Agape” love, we misunderstand and can fall prey to theological error - For example, some believe that since God always loves everyone unconditionally then universalism must prevail – everyone will be saved and there is no hell (a common belief among unbelievers and even some believers whose only concept of God is “love”, forsaking justice, holiness, etc.)
This is tender affection, brotherly love and is a reciprocated love between two parties. This is a more intimate kind of love that is narrower in scope than agape love because it is reciprocal and involves relationship between two parties. Note that the genuine exercise of “phileo” love must also include “agape” love; it is not exercised independently of the will.
This is the Greek word used in the gospel of John to describe the tender love of Jesus for his friend Lazurus; we even see Jesus weeping so deep is His love for Lazarus (John 11:35-36). In the gospels we see Jesus exercising agape love in His incarnation (John 3:16) and in healing and feeding the multitudes (Luke 5:12-13; Matt 14:13-21). But we also we clearly see that Jesus called people into a deeper relationship with Him beyond His universal apage love for them and exercised a narrower, more exclusive form of love with some, i.e., Lazurus, the apostles, etc. Even within the apostle group, we see varying levels of intimacy with Jesus – the inner 3 (Peter, James & John) had a closer relationship with Christ and were recipients of knowledge and revelation from Jesus the others did not experience (Matt 17:1). Finally, within the inner 3, we see that the apostle John apparently had the closest relationship of all (John 13:23; John 21:7).
Bu incredibly, even this exclusive love relationship with the apostle John is not ultimately the kind of deep intimate love relationship that God calls us into with Him. For the risen Christ calls us into an even deeper, more intimate and more exclusive relationship with Him
This is the Greek word for erotic, sexual love and is not used in the New Testament. But, we can exchange it for the one exclusive place where it is supposed to be used – in marriage, i.e., marital love in a marriage relationship is between one man and one woman
Marriage is the most intimate and most exclusive love relationship that exists. Marriage is the Biblical picture of the ultimate intimate relationship the believer has with Christ (Eph 5:31-32). Note the exercise of marital love must by definition also include “agape” and “phileo” love; marital love without both agape and phileo love is nothing more than rape. A husband exercises agape love at marriage when he commits “till death do us part”, independent of circumstance (for richer or poorer, in health or in sickness, etc.). When a man courts a woman, he ideally exercises in descending order these forms of love into ever-greater intimacy:
- first “agape”
- then deeper intimacy with “phileo”
- and ultimately after marriage, into the deepest, most intimate love possible (eros – marital love) that unifies him with his wife (Gen 2:24)
- exercising agape love in the incarnation
- then phileo in the ministry of Christ
- and finally marital love on the cross (Eph 5:25)
Marital love is in fact, the love relationship that Christ ultimately calls us into (Eph 5:31-32). More than 6 centuries before Christ, In the OT we find a remarkable promise of a coming time when God would implement a new, previously unknown level of intimate relationship with His people (Jer 31:31-34). Note in this passage that God refers to himself as the “husband” to unfaithful Israel (v. 32). This new relationship (under a new covenant) will be characterized by an relationship so intimate that God Himself will do a work inside His people in their hearts (the center of their being) (v. 33). So intimate will the relationship be that everyone will have unparalleled personal, direct access and experiential knowledge of God (v. 34)
It is on the cross that God opened the door into this kind of relationship with Him – a level of intimacy not possible with him since the Fall of man (Matt 27:50-51). This level of intimacy is available only to the church – Eph 5:31 makes clear that this intimacy occurs only between Christ and the redeemed (i.e., the church), not between Christ and the world. Note the marriage supper is for Christ and His bride, the church (Rev 19:6-7; Eph 5:31-32) – not Christ and the world that He “agape” loves
Note also that Scripture often uses the verb (“to know”) when describing erotic love (i.e., Gen 4:1). To express this kind of love with someone is to experience the most intimate kind of love and know them in a sense that no one else outside the relationship possibly can. Thus, John Piper convincingly argues that God blessed mankind with sexual love in order that we might have an better understanding of the level of intimacy God invites us into to know Him more fully.
We must not make the shortsighted mistake of thinking we somehow have sexual love with God in some sense. Remembering that sex is not merely physical but also a spiritual joining of two people, it is a mistake to think we will experience physical sexual love per se with God. What we will experience at our marriage with Christ (Rev 19) is far greater than marital love in this life. Marital love with our spouse is but a foretaste of the joy, ecstasy and pleasure (both physical and spiritual) that will be ours when we are finally united with Him for all eternity.
What does it mean to be in a marital-love relationship with Christ? As with earthly marriage, it is an exclusive relationship. Those outside the relationship don’t really know Christ and are forever excluded (Matt 7:21-23). As with earthly marriage, it requires total commitment on our part (Matt 16:25). As with earthly marriage, it must supersede all other relationships (Matt 10:37; Luke 14:26).
In the gospel of John at the Last Supper, the night before His crucifixion, Jesus begins to make a full revelation of His love and the intimate relationship that He is inviting the disciples into (at least as much as the disciples can absorb at that point). In John 13:1, the word translated as “He loved them to the end” has agape as its root. This is the unconditional agape love accorded everyone, including Judas who was still present at that point (John 13:21-30). After the departure of Judas however, Jesus then begins to open their understanding of a deeper relationship He is inviting them into. God will empower and inhabit them with His very Spirit (John 14:15-31). So intimate will be the connection that Jesus likens it a vine in which the disciples must abide in love (John 15:1-9).
In addition to God Himself being “in” the disciples, Jesus speaks of the disciples being “in” Him ( John 16:33). He speaks of being in unity with His disciples (John 17:23, 26). Jesus says the love between the Son & the Father will be in His followers (John 17:26). So powerful is the union that believers experience with Christ that Scripture speaks of the followers of Christ actually “partaking of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:3-4). Note that even though Jesus loved Judas with agape love, He waits until the departure of Judas to begin His revelation and invitation into deeper relationship. (While Judas was the recipient of Christ’s agape love, he could not enter into a deeper relationship with Him. Jesus even says it would have been better for Judas that he was not born (Mark 14:21).
Not everyone who is a recipient of God’s agape love will be saved. On the other hand, the only ones invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb are those redeemed by their repentant faith (Rev 19:6-9). Scripture warns us that most people (all of whom were recipients of God’s agape love) will be excluded from this event (Matt 7:13-14) where the church is eternally joined with Christ in the most intimate and exclusionary of relationships
It is on the cross where Jesus opens the door into a level of intimacy with God not possible since the Fall (Matt 27:50-51). A few weeks later, the church is born as God the Holy Spirit descends and inhabits the followers of Christ (Acts 2:1-4). This remarkable phenomenon of God actually coming inside and taking up residence in the believer, is common to every redeemed person without exception (1 Cor 12:13).
There is a reason that Scripture uses marriage to help us understand our ultimate love relationship with Christ (Eph 5:31-32). Marital love is the narrowest, reciprocal kind of love of all, manifested one-on-one; our love for Christ must be one-on-One. Marital love is the most intimate kind of love and supersedes all other relationships; our love for Christ must supersede all other relationships and loves. Marital love is exclusive, it excludes everyone else outside the relationship; Christ’s love for us is exclusive, it excludes everyone outside the church while our love for him must exclude everything and everyone else. Unfaithfulness in marital love is adultery and devastates the relationship between husband and wife; unfaithfulness with our love for Christ is idolatry and devastates our relationship with Him. Marital love is the most passionate love; our love for Christ should be the most passionate love in our life. Marital love involves total commitment; our love for Christ must be willing to forsake everything else. Marital love is all-consuming (if you are already married, remember when your highest priority was to marry your loved one), our love for Christ should be all consuming. True marital love brings the highest joy and ecstasy; our love for Christ should bring us the highest joy and ecstasy. Marital love unifies us with a bond that only God can ultimately break; our love relationship with Christ ultimately unifies with Him with an unbreakable bond; nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of Christ. Marital love is “forever” from our perspective in this life until death; once free of death our marital love for Christ is for eternity.
Here is the most amazing and jaw-dropping aspect of our love relationship with Christ: As finite creatures we are limited to having this kind of an “all in”, one-on-one relationship with only one other person (Gen 2:24; 1 Cor 7:2, etc.) We can only give all our love in the most intimate sense to one other person, who in turn gives us all their love in the most intimate sense. But God, being infinite with infinite love, is capable of having an “all in”, one-on-one relationship simultaneously with an infinite number of men and women, created in His image! Just as God is omnipresent in His being (simultaneously everywhere present with all of His fullness), so He can be omnipresent (simultaneously present in all of His fullness and love) in every unique love relationship with each believer. God doesn’t “split” His love among the redeemed. Each one of us has the potential to receive God’s love in all of its fullness.